Let's Talk Tropes, Rant

Contemporary Romance Chronicles: The Grand Gesture

Unpopular opinion: Grand gestures are bullshit. 

That’s right. You read me. 

I had no idea how much I hated them until I started reading a ton of contemporary romance. Perhaps the historical romance authors I was reading just don’t go for the grand gesture, but that doesn’t sound quite right. Most of the histrom authors I tend to read are prolific, with huge backlists, and backlists usually include some variety. There’s that Sarah MacLean novel in which the duke gets a divorce through an Act of Parliament for his grand gesture. That did make me rage, TBH. Or there was that Shana Galen book where the hero jumped into the Thames with only the clothes on his back to catch a ship to AMERICA even though he had time to plan for a journey. Ruined the book for me. What an idiot. But most grand gestures aren’t like that in histrom. They’re, like, declaring true love in a ballroom or something. Maybe it’s because of the social male-female power dynamics? Maybe because they’re historically removed and I’m less emotionally invested in people acting like idiots? Maybe it’s because these heroes are all emotionally constipated and just expressing feelings is a grand gesture? 

It will remain a mystery. 

Maybe the reason I get so hung up on the grand gesture in contemporary romance is because I expect modern adults to act with some semblance of modern sensibilities and emotional maturity. It’s a big ask, I know. I live in a fantasy world. 

Let’s get back on track. 

WHY are grand gestures bullshit? I’m glad you asked. 

  1. They stem from communication problems, and anyone who’s been in a moderately healthy long-term relationship knows that communication is key.

Looking at just my unpublished reviews, I see at least five (5) that involve a Relationship Ruining Problem because of REASONS, but the protagonists have their fight and then…nothing. They don’t talk to each other for Days or Weeks. Fortunately (FORTUNATELY!) they all have a Friend With a Heart of Gold who is available to Speak Sense and remind them that humans are Imperfect Beings. 

Inspiration Strikes! They (usually the ones with the male bits) must Prove Their Love and Grovel. But what could possibly demonstrate that they have heard and understand what their partner has said? That they will change their ways? Not words certainly. They want to be together forever, but trust cannot be regained by something as plebeian as a Conversation involving Apologies and Active Listening. No indeed. 

The solution to whatever problem and subsequent non-communication is almost certainly going to be a Grand Gesture that involves no communication with the other partner, impacts the relationship without the input of the other partner, and expects to solve the problem without doing any of the hard work of effecting real change. 

If you want me to believe that this relationship actually has a chance in hell of surviving, the protagonists need to do better. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve been in a relationship for 18 years and I don’t remember what it was like not to know if it was going to work out. Except that I do know that it worked out because both my partner and I were committed to making it work. By talking to each other. A lot. 

  1. They resolve a (supposedly) serious problem with one action.

I have to thank Ingrid for helping me formulate this one. She’s very good at seeing people and understanding their problems. 

If we use 1. above as our springboard, we consider what we’re actually asking for with a grand gesture here. We have two possibilities for our Relationship Ruining Problem. A) There has been a pattern of behavior that is a Cause for Concern or B) There has never been a Cause for Concern but the problem is Practically Insurmountable. 

In the case of B, I usually cannot contain my rage while we are muddling through the messiness because SERIOUSLY? Your partner has never given you any indication that this is an ongoing problem but we immediately need to be in breakup and existential crisis mode? The British Knight is a great example of this. The hero has a history of prioritizing his career in favor of his relationship, but with his ex, not with the heroine. And he works late one time on an important evening so the heroine FLIES TO A DIFFERENT CONTINENT. Without talking to the hero first. Obviously. It sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it is

If we are having a meltdown about a first occurrence of a problem presenting, and a grand gesture is the solution to the problem, I have serious concerns about the maturity level of the parties in the relationship. And a grand gesture ain’t gonna fix that.

Now let’s talk about A. This is more problematic. Patterns of behavior tell us what is real. I can say I’m going to clean my house 5,000 times, and every time, my husband is going to say, “I appreciate your enthusiasm, dear, but you do understand that your personality isn’t going to change, right?” Because I suck at cleaning my house. My follow-through is atrocious. 

Housekeeping is one thing, but what about when we’re looking at a more problematic behavior pattern? Withholding information from one’s partner, for example? Lying? Otherwise not valuing the personhood and independence of one’s partner? Serious stuff that, if it is not addressed, should be relationship ending. But we throw in a grand gesture and suddenly we are confident that this pattern of behavior is broken, the problem is resolved, the perpetrating partner has seen the light. Because that’s totally how that works. (/sarcasm)

If readers are asking for heroes who model behaviors that are healthy, as we seem to be in contemporary romance at the very least, then why on earth do we not also ask for a healthy behavior pattern here? I’m seriously asking because I actually enjoy the escapism of reading relationships that are so full of red flags they’d disqualify a whole soccer team. I own this, and I don’t expect a bunch of good behavior in red flag-prone smut. But if I’m going to read about protagonists who feel they are not respected by their partners, I would like to know why they feel like everything’s fine after one grand gesture. Why don’t we expect these protagonists to sit down and talk things through to actually get to a place where the parties understand what problem is occurring and what action needs to be taken to address it? Because one grand gesture ain’t it

  1. They almost always involve one partner making a decision that impacts the partnership without discussing it with the other partner

This one guts me every single time. Especially in the aforementioned “You don’t really respect me” dialogue. 

I’ll be brief. 

A grand gesture that involves a geographic relocation or a redistribution of assets is almost universally a hard fail. If one party is going to be making a decision that impacts the relationship for both parties, a unilateral action is not okay

Also, usually it’s stupid AF. I just read a book in which the billionaire hero signed over all of his assets–and I mean down to the clothes on his back, which is absurd–to his marriage-of-convenience wife to prove that he loves her. Sir, how dumb are you? Have you ever heard of a safety net? Also, you’re already married, without a prenup. Just share your assets. 

  1. Not all grand gestures are public, but any grand gesture that happens in public should result in a public shaming. 

This one might sound a bit harsh, but I feel the same way about public proposals. Yes, doing something on a grand scale is a clear presentation of added vulnerability by the Groveler. But I’ll be a broken record here and say that if there was no conflict resolution, this grand gesture accomplishes absolutely nothing. AND ALSO it creates an environment of added pressure for the Grovelee to grant forgiveness. So it looks like the Groveler is being extra vulnerable, but it’s actually remarkably manipulative. Who wants to be the asshole who refuses to grant forgiveness? Nobody, that’s who. And if the problem is a 2.A) above? Yikes!

So there you have it. Grand gestures are bullshit. Fight me.

4 thoughts on “Contemporary Romance Chronicles: The Grand Gesture”

  1. I 100% agree and you said this all way more eloquently than I could. I don’t read a ton of romance but I do watch romcoms and many have the same bullshit Conflict followed by a crazy Grand Gesture. Not impressed! The public proposal ones are the worst for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This didn’t make it into Erin’s analysis, but I think this trend in romance is directly related to RomComs (which is influencing some contemporary romances in ways that I don’t love) – stupid Lloyd Dobler and his stupid boom box.

      Like

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